Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
It’s not often that you read a book and it immediately jumps up into your “Best Books Ever” list. Usually it takes some time and reflection, careful thought about the book’s characters, themes and message. Perhaps a re-read would be in order, and then, after some consideration, you might say, “Yeah. I think this is a really, really good book that I want everyone else to read.”
I think I hit that somewhere around page 182.
This is, as the cover tells us, a novel of “An ancient China that never was.” It’s set in the long-ago, indeterminate past (of which China has so very much), and starts off in a small village with an unusual history. The village of Ku-Fu, the story goes, was home to a section of the Great Wall, commissioned by the Emperor of China many centuries ago. This would not in itself be notable, except that it was built 122 miles south of the rest of the wall, thus serving no real purpose whatsoever. The general in charge was, he maintains, given the orders by the Emperor of Heaven himself, a story which held no sway with the more earthly Emperor who was ready to execute him. A more believable story was produced – that a great dragon had rested itself on that part of the wall, thus moving it, and it shouldn’t be tampered with.
And so the village of Ku-Fu became home to what was known as The Dragon’s Pillow, a place that would one day loom large in the history of not only the village, but all of China.
It is a peaceful village with the usual colorful characters that you get in such a place, such as the terrible partners Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, two greedy and unscrupulous men who hold the economic life of the village in their hands. When their misdeeds go too far, resulting in the horrible poisoning of many of the village’s children, the story’s narrator, Number Ten Ox (whose given name is Lu Yu, but he would not want to be confused with the famous author of The Classic of Tea) is tasked to bring a wise man from the city to diagnose the problem and find a solution. Out of the many wise men, Ox finds Li Kao, a cynical, world-weary curmudgeon with, as he so often tells us, a slight flaw in his character.
Together, Ox and Li Kao must travel the length and breadth of China to find the Great Root – a ginseng root that was kept by the mythical Princess of Birds, and whose healing properties are all that stand between the children of Ku-Fu and certain death. Along the way, they must travel terrible labyrinths, fight unimaginable monsters, battle against an immortal evil, bring peace to restless ghosts and solve the greatest mystery in the history of China – what happened to the Princess of Birds, beloved of the Star Shepherd, Prince of Heaven.
There is just so much to recommend this book, I don’t even know where to start. For one, it’s a lot of fun to read. The person who recommended it to me did so on the reasonable assumption that, since I like Terry Pratchett so much, I would probably like this book as well. And that was a very good assumption – there is a certain similarity between the two. Hughart uses humor very deftly, keeping the characters alive and interesting through even the most dangerous of times. Where Pratchett’s humor often feels like literary slapstick, however, Hughart’s is a bit more subtle. The characters are funny, yes, but the book was not written to make you laugh. It was written so that the reader would have a good time reading a story well-told.
And what a story it was. It begins with a fairly straightforward quest – a search for the Great Ginseng Root to cure the children of Ku-Fu – and turns into something so much larger than that. As the evil Duke of Ch’in says, they’re on the right quest, but for all the wrong reasons, a cryptic statement that takes a while to make sense. The scope of the story gets bigger and bigger as it goes on, and you realize that the pieces for this quest were put into place hundreds, if not thousands of years before the story actually started.
The history of China is on display here, if somewhat distorted for the purposes of entertainment. Hughart spent time living in the Far East and gained a healthy respect for its long and often unbelievable history and culture. The book includes elements of China’s history of inventiveness and ingenuity, as well as cultural myths that extend beyond its borders.
The characters themselves are wonderful, too. Number Ten Ox is an earnest, strong, well-meaning young man who has one goal in mind- save the children of his village. Li Kao is a devious old man who tends to use his wisdom and quick thinking for more nefarious purposes – thus the slight flaw in his character. There are a lot of notable minor characters as well, including Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, who somehow manage to turn up all through the story, always being chased by the people they’ve cheated. The Duke of Ch’in is a terrifying figure, Henpecked Ho is comically dark, and Miser Shen starts off utterly unlikable, but if there’s one character in the story that forces you to put down the book for a few minutes and gather your thoughts, it is he.
It’s a moving tale of hope and perseverance and the power of myth. It’s a story about the need for humanity to temper desire and what happens when we let our lives be governed by fear and greed. It’s about love and justice, revenge and history. It’s a book that almost immediately earned my respect and admiration, and that’s pretty hard to do.
So go get it. Block out some time when you can sit and fall into the story and really get absorbed in it, because let me promise you – it will be well worth it.
“Take a large bowl. Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means ‘dry cup’ – and drink to the dregs.”
“And I will be wise?”
“Better. You will be Chinese.”
– Li Kao to Procipius, on attaining wisdom, Bridge of Birds
Qixi Festival on Wikipedia